Working on his debut film The Last Victim, Naveen Chathapuram encountered the hurdle of a worldwide shutdown and lack of distribution induced by the pandemic, but used transformative technology to complete the project.
The pandemic is going to cause a behavioural change in viewership: Director Naveen A Chathapuram
Mumbai - 23 May 2021 22:05 IST
The pandemic came like the proverbial last straw for Naveen A Chathapuram's directorial debut that was a decade in the making. Having worked on the production line, Chathapuram was set to bring his film, The Last Victim, to the big screen in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The founder of Immortal Thoughts, a television production company, Chathapuram has been involved in film production for over a decade. As producer, he was part of Chris Hemsworth's cinematic debut, Cash (2010), as well as the TV series Brown Nation (2016). Yet, it was when his own directorial debut was coming to light that the greatest challenge arose.
"My plan was to be in New York editing the film," Chathapuram told Cinestaan.com on a Zoom call. "What happened was, by March 2020, it was a complete lockdown in the United States. The fear of the pandemic had set in. First, it was a disruption of our schedule. I knew then it was not going to happen in March."
It must have been disappointing. The director had been living with the idea for the film since early 2003. "About 18 years ago, I had just finished my course and met this anthropologist in Tucson, Arizona," he said. "He wanted to produce some movies and hear some ideas. He brought five or six different folders of different movies. one of them was The Last Victim...
"We shot in the summer of 2003. The location was in Tucson, called Mt Lemmon. The entire mountain caught fire. So we decided to put off the project till the next year. As you know, 15 or 16 years just flew by."
With a diverse cast of characters caught in a cycle of violence and retribution, The Last Victim is a stylish, neo-Western thriller. It features Ali Larter, Ron Perlman and Ralph Ineson and follows a group of modern-day outlaws dealing with the fallout of a crime gone wrong in the harsh landscape of the American Southwest. Led by a terrifying and determined criminal, the outlaws are soon pursued by an ageing local sheriff trying to solve the worst case his small town has seen.
In the interview, Chathapuram described the experience of transitioning from production to direction and spoke about working with Ron Perlman and a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth. Excerpts:
Hi Naveen, let's talk about the film first. The Last Victim is a fascinating title. But reading the description, I could not help but wonder that the film is a little deeper than a simple thriller. Can you talk about the story, and how it evolved?
About 18 years ago, I had just finished my course and met this anthropologist in Tucson, Arizona. He wanted to produce some movies and hear some ideas. He brought five or six different folders of different movies. One of them was The Last Victim. He had written a paragraph by hand of what he thought the plot should be. It was really very interesting because back in the 1970s, you had movies like Deliverance (1972). In the 1990s, you had The River Wild (1994). This project was an homage to those kind of films.
It took us two or three months to write the film. We shot in the summer of 2003. The location was in Arizona, called Mt Lemmon. The entire mountain caught fire. So we decided to put off the project till the next year. As you know, 15 or 16 years just flew by.
In 2017, I came to a point where I was like 'why did I get into the industry in the first place?' The answer was to be a storyteller, to be a writer-director. At that point, I had gone through the journey of becoming a producer, an executive, run some companies and all that. I wanted something that was challenging enough, at the same time something I could handle as a first project. I was looking for things, and I remembered The Last Victim.
It was still relevant, and there were a lot of cool things about it. I had shortlisted a few writers, of whom one was Ashley James Louis, who had written some screenplays which made it to The Black List. His voice really resonated with me, and I called him.
A few months later, when I met with Ash, he came with a full notebook of notes. That excited me, so he came on board and we got the script done.
I love thrillers which are well-crafted, true to the genre. I also follow a lot of Westerns. The script had both of those elements. It was in the neo-Western genre. It also had the thriller aspect, noir aspect. It was exciting to take on that challenge to make my first movie as a writer-director.
Did your previous experience on the production line help? How did the shift to writer-director challenge or shape the film?
I originally went to film school for directing, and when I first entered the business, I understood there are a lot of things that happen behind the scenes that I was not aware of. There are nuts and bolts to production. There are a lot of other things than storytelling. Storytelling is at the very top, everything else happens around it — management, coordination, location hunting.
I was intimidated, although I had a vision and a passion to tell stories. Standing on the sidelines and watching directors, I understood that I needed to have a good understanding of everything that happens behind the scenes before I step in and take control.
I also liked working with a lot of creators, directors. It was a learning experience, but also fuelled my creative energy. I considered myself a director's producer. I would try to download their vision and try to do whatever I could in my power to make their job easier so that they didn't have to worry about logistics or finance, and their focus could be on making the creative product.
I think it really helped ground me in a way that someone who has not gone through that experience [would not be]. It's really good that I can fulfil my creative instincts by checking on the shot list, picking up the narrative elements, but then, afterward, I can sit back and check whether I am being a little unrealistic towards my shot list. So when a producer comes in and says, 'We will have to rework this scene, based on our schedule or such', I am able to give them a creative solution based on my experience.
Either way, it is one of the most stressful jobs. Considering that the project has been germinating for over 15 years, with a pandemic in the last year, how did that change the experience? What was the challenge?
It was really interesting. We ended through mid-December of 2019. It was just a couple of months before the entire pandemic went down. It had been a gruelling shoot. The location of the film in the story is in New Mexico. We filmed it in British Columbia, Canada. By the time September came on, Canada's cold was unbearable. There lies a very challenging and gruelling shoot.
The goal was to take a couple of months so that my editor could assemble the footage, and meet back some time in March to edit it, then go into post-production.
What happened was, by March, it was a complete lockdown. The fear of the pandemic had set in. First, it was a disruption of our schedule. I knew it [editing] was not gonna happen in March. Initially, we worked remotely. I would share an idea of the scene and he would send in his suggestions through email after working on it. There were a lot of blind spots.
What helped us was technology. There were three factors — the web camera, screen sharing, and streaming. The software allowed us to transform the editor's screen into a video stream. In this sense, we were able to edit with him in real time. It was a seamless approach. By June, we had figured it out and went into editing.
The challenge was not being able to travel or have a release date, or distributors. In the American film market in November, a lot of the foreign distributors did not know what would happen in 2021, so a lot of them were holding on to their cash. A lot of them were cash-strapped as well. But on the other hand, it was the rise of streaming platforms.
It basically collapsed the time in the growth curve. Streamers are the norm now, and they are here to stay. On the positive side, I had something to do. If not post-production, I did not know what I would have done.
Did you consider going to online streaming?
When Avatar (2009) came out, it made a billion dollars at the box office. I am just generalizing here [but] worldwide you have a hundred million viewers watching for $10. For a movie like Avatar, they spend $100 per ticket. A movie on the lower end of the budget would never go to that level of an audience. It will take years for it to get there.
Nowadays, whether it is White Tiger (2020), Extraction (2020), or The Irishman (2020), they all get the same amount of audience on day one. I am talking of the potential. With a pre-pandemic theatrical business, Extraction would have done decently at the box office, but it would not have gained that kind of attention. It is exciting to have access to that kind of a global audience through an online platform.
You are planning for a summer release. Considering the pandemic experience, will it change the perspective of audiences towards watching cinema?
I think in the near term there is still going to be a behavioural change. Once behaviours change, things will start to play out differently. From a lot of people's standpoint, they are now used to seeing new releases on their devices on release day. It will be hard to change that.
I just read somewhere that one of the studios reduced the window between theatrical and OTT release. Here, a film has 90 to 100 days before it goes to the next window. You make sure that theatres have demand. I don't know if it is going to be 45–50 days, but the trend is going there.
The more I talk to film fans, the more I know that people are sick of staying at home and want to get back to the theatre experience. Initially, it is going to be the larger budget films involved. But in the long run, the theatrical experience is here to stay in some form or the other.
Directing someone like Ron Perlman in your first film must have been intimidating. The actor is a veteran and has such a presence. Talk us through the casting.
Working with Ron Perlman was such an experience! I can take a lot of learnings from it. He flew in two days before the shoot. We were already shooting and he was excited about the script and the role. The day before the shoot, we met and had a general discussion. What shocked me was how down-to-earth he was, and how open he was to ideas.
He is a really really funny guy with a dry sense of humour. Sometimes, we don't know if he is joking or serious. Towards the end, we had built a rapport and I was sure I am not going to be intimidated to see him on set.
He is living this character. He is very intuitive about the camera, the angle of the lens, and how to present himself in front of the camera and be natural.
One of the greatest things I learned from him is how to make relatively inexperienced actors be comfortable and able to play the role without being nervous. Another thing is when I would direct other actors, he would sit there and listen. I would see that to help them out, he would do something in his performance to help them reach another level. From that standpoint, it was not just a pleasure to have him on the movie, but also to watch someone who is such a legend. You have heard of actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, who are down-to-earth, but to witness it is different.